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New FCC leader keeps an eye on the scoreboard

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What should the technology industry expect from Tom Wheeler, the new FCC (Federal Communications Commission) chairman? That was the central question on Wednesday when he sat down for an hour-long one-on-one session with Gary Shapiro, the president of CEA (Consumer Electronics Association), at the CES conference. It was Wheeler’s first CES interview and he was following in the footsteps of his predecessor - Julius Genachowski - who practiced the fine art of talking a great deal and revealing little. As Shapiro said in his own opening remarks about previous interviews with FCC commissioners, “They’re generally very careful about what they say.”

Wheeler was careful as well, but he also appeared much more willing to reveal his thinking on a number of important subjects that are critical to future technology growth. With a paralyzed Congress, the FCC finds itself in a position for 2014 to perhaps have the greatest governmental impact on mobile technologies and the future of digital broadcasting.

About fifteen minutes into his conversation with Shapiro, Wheeler shared an anecdote that spoke volumes about his approach. An Ohio State alum (“I’m a proud Buckeye.”), Wheeler described attending a football game one afternoon in Columbus and noticing that the public address announcer was being mirrored by closed captioning on the mammoth stadium scoreboard. Wheeler wants to see this become the standard nation-wide, saying “If we can do it there, we can do it anywhere.”

For the new FCC chairman, it’s all about innovation, competition and the fervent protection of both. These values form the acid test he intends to use when evaluating every proposal that comes before the commission.

This could signal serious trouble ahead for some of the bigger players in the technology world, especially when it comes to mobile. In his remarks on Wednesday, Wheeler indicated that he was inclined to take a much closer look at AT&T’s new service, called “Sponsored Data,” where consumers can take advantage of movie promotions without eating into their data plan. AT&T assumes the data load for them.

Before becoming the new chairman of the FCC, Wheeler wrote a freewheeling blog. In one post, he referred to Apple and Google as the “Silicon Valley mafia.” Asked about this by Shapiro, Wheeler did not deny this characterization saying that in his role with the FCC, “We’re strong supporters of the open Internet.”

For broadcasters and mobile band carriers, the next 18 months are going to be significant. That’s because the FCC will be holding a complicated three-part spectrum auction that Wheeler hopes will open up the airwaves for more unlicensed use such as that employed by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi devices. “I’m a big proponent of unlicensed applications,” Wheeler said on Wednesday.

Wheeler had barely been in his new role for a few weeks before a huge controversy erupted over the possibility that the FCC would allow cellphone calls on airplanes during flight. The new FCC chairman reiterated that he’s only interested in getting comments on the idea for now. More hopefully for opponents of in-flight cell use, Wheeler also said flatly, “I don’t want to sit next to someone yapping away.”

He also appeared to have no interest in evaluating the NFL’s widely-disliked “blackout” rule which lets the football league prevent the broadcast of a game in its local area if all the tickets have not been sold. Wheeler said that the FCC has chosen not to intervene on this issue and he did not seem inclined to change that for now.

At one point in response to a question from Shapiro, Wheeler responded with a question of his own: “We have to ask: what’s the rule?” This brought a quick retort from the CEA president who said, “The rule is whatever you say it is!” Such is the power of the FCC. Under a new chairman, there will be new rules in 2014 and the players in the technology industry – big and small – are all hopeful that they end up ahead on the scoreboard and not behind.

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